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Channeling Realities: Religion, Ecology, and Technology in the Classroom PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

Whitney A. Bauman, Florida International University

Whitney A. Bauman is assistant professor of religion and science at Florida International University in Miami. His publications include Theology, Creation, and Environmental Ethics: From Creatio ex Nihilo to Terra Nullius (New York: Routledge, 2009) and, coedited with Richard Bohannon and Kevin O’Brien, Grounding Religion: A Field Guide to the Study of Religion and Ecology (New York: Routledge, 2010). Bauman currently serves as co-Chair of the Religion and Ecology Group at the American Academy of Religion and as book review editor for Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology. He teaches courses such as “Technology and Human Values,” “Religion, Nature, and Globalization,” and “Religion, Gender, and Nature.” Bauman’s current research is in the area of religion, nature, and queer theory.

Making It Personal

On the very first day of my course “Technology and Human Values,” after general introductions and syllabus review, I have students break out into small groups of no more than five students. Each group is required to choose one piece of “technology” from among its members. They then have to answer the three driving questions of the course, which are adapted from the Noreen Herzfeld work that describes the questions the Amish ask when deciding whether or not to adopt new technology:

  1. How does this technology change what it means to be human (for better/worse)?
  2. How does this technology change what it means to live in a community (for better/worse)?
  3. How does this technology change human/earth/other animal relations (for better/worse)?

These three questions are at the heart of what I understand to be “religion and ecology,” which deals with the intersection of anthropology, meaning, and our place within the larger context of the earth. Most of the groups choose something that is common to them all, such as an iPhone, corrective glasses, laptop, gaming device, etc. For the purpose of this short article, I will illustrate the iPhone example. The groups usually come up with creative and intelligent answers for the first question. For instance, one of the iPhone groups had heard that such devices that enable immediate communication twenty-four hours a day lead to feelings of fear and mistrust when someone doesn’t answer an e-mail, phone call, or text message. Thus, this device may challenge basic trust between people. The second question is often answered easily as well. For example, and on a positive note, smart phones such as the iPhone make it easier for communities to transcend geographical boundaries. If someone feels like a “freak” in his/her hometown, they are always only a few taps away from chatting, talking, or texting with someone “like them” in a different geographic location.

It is the third question that leads to the most problems and that is, I think, at the heart of the challenge of teaching “religion and ecology” to the “millennial” generation. Most students answer the third question with how technology improves in some way the planet (“greener” technology) or the lives of animals. Such an attitude fits right in with the overall idea of technology as salvific — which is a historical theme/attitude that gets taken up in the course. Some students suggest just the opposite — that technology only destroys our relationship to the rest of the natural world by taking us further and further from it. This attitude fits the Luddite mentality toward technology, which is another historical theme/attitude that gets taken up in the course. However, almost none of them see technology (or even themselves) as part of the rest of the natural world. For this reason, almost none of them answer the third question in the way that I had intended, which is: “How does your given piece of technology work, what resources are used in its production, and how does the production affect humans, other animals, and the earth?” 

As students of the “net generation” or “wired age” or “millennial generation,” as they are variously described, one might assume that they would know a bit more about the ways in which their worlds are mediated through technologies such as the iPhone. However, this is not the case. Most of them do not realize that silicon microchips are highly toxic, nor do they realize that the Internet “grid” takes an enormous amount of energy to maintain (so much so that there are new studies showing it is more environmentally friendly to use paper copies of things rather than e-copies). Further, they are often not aware of the unequal distribution of the availability of technology or the ecological waste that results from the production and use of technologies such as the iPhone. These technologies are touted as bringing about a wireless — and therefore green? — revolution that would not take up the resources that industrial age technologies use. This exercise has done a wonderful job of highlighting the ways in which religious values, ecological issues, and our very responsibility toward the earth community are tied up in everyday uses of technology.


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